It’s a general rule, and one she’s followed ever since she was old enough to know what primping was. About fifty percent of the rule’s justification sprang from a disdain for vanity and fashion. The other fifty percent was the fault of her priorities, which rested firmly elsewhere. She would rather sleep an extra half hour than apply various powders and gels to make her look like a less human, yet subjectively more attractive version of herself. She would rather perambulate in comfort in flat, sensible shoes than mince around the office with the long, lean leg-lines lent to her by alluring, but ultimately impractical heels. She would rather spend a reasonable amount of money on classic, well-made attire than recycle her wardrobe season after season to remain en vogue.
She held these priorities so closely that one might consider them convictions, if one were so inclined, and Hermione had never been one to abandon her convictions, whatever the cost.
So, keeping all that in mind, one could only conclude that what Hermione was doing now, before the full-length mirror in the woman’s loo near the lifts of the Ministry of Magic’s Atrium, was not primping.
If her hair had unusual luster or fell in more carefully coiffed ringlets, it was because she had run out of her normal curl-taming hair product, had popped into the cosmetics shop beside Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, and had purchased a new brand upon the recommendation of a fellow curly-haired co-worker. If she had applied more than just her typical touch of mascara and hydrating, lightly tinted lip balm, it was because she had an important meeting in the afternoon and wanted to make a good impression. And if she wore a crisp white blouse that clung to her in all the right places and her favorite pencil skirt, accented with a thin, patent-leather red belt at her waist and matching red kitten heels on her feet, it was because a woman had a right to dress up every now and then without being questioned about it, thanks very much.
If she had done any or all of these things, they had all been for reasons very separate from her eight a.m. appointment who, after a glance at her wristwatch, had about thirty seconds to arrive before, according to the strictest rules of punctuality, officially being late.
No sooner had the thought been released into the universe than was it sent back via memo. It landed in her open palm and unfolded to reveal blocky, automated lettering. Her chest tightened with nerves: he was here.
She spared herself a final glance, checking that all the uncharacteristically managed pieces of her appearance had remained in place. Her reflection gave her a thumbs-up, and Hermione decided that was enough. With a deep breath, she exited the loo.
Her heels click-clacked in a very satisfactory way as she crossed the Atrium’s dark, wood floors, and Hermione imagined she cut a very striking figure. She felt professional and adult. Capable and confident. Fierce and, when she saw him, suddenly unprepared.
Draco Malfoy waited for her like the gods of Ancient Rome might have waited for sacrificial virgins: as if it were his due. He leaned against a column with what would have been practiced nonchalance on anyone with less natural confidence. Every inch of him—from his crown of platinum hair to his shining, dragon-hide boots—radiated boredom. His haughty grey eyes wandered the Atrium with careless disdain, as if the peacock-blue ceiling and gilt fireplaces were commonplace.
Draco looked as if he had deigned to apply for a position here, and the Ministry had been so suffused with sycophantic gratitude that refusing him employment hadn’t even been an option.
It had been. Equally many arguments existed for hiring Draco as against, but in the end, logic had prevailed. They had already hired one former Slytherin and Death Eater in Theodore Nott, so another was not so great a burden. Draco’s obvious remorse at his role in Voldemort’s rise to power made him a model candidate for a Ministry-sponsored redemption, which would help the Ministry’s reputation as much as his. And the work he would be doing—gathering foreign and domestic intelligence—required someone with connections, brains, charm, and a loose ethical code.
He was the perfect candidate. And, she had to admit, perfectly captivating.
She faltered a step, and the break in rhythm drew his eye. With sinuous grace, he pulled away from the column and—to her surprise—offered her his hand.
She took his warm, dry hand in her comparatively cold, clammy one and nearly disintegrated from embarrassment: surely he could feel her traitorous pulse pounding through her palm like the 1812 Overture. He smirked at her—a lopsided expression accompanied by the barest hint of a raised eyebrow—and Hermione almost wished she had never volunteered for this.
“Malfoy,” she said, dropping his hand and regaining at most a modicum of composure and at least the ability to breathe. “Welcome to the Ministry.”
Draco had not been the first newcomer she had helped on-board, nor the first former classmate, nor the first Slytherin. Bolstered by this breadth of experience, Hermione gained firmer footing as she progressed through her tour. Yes, she had babbled throughout the brief lift ride to Level Two, and the collection of coffees and teas in the kitchenette area did not warrant such a breathy description, but she had certainly improved as she led him around the common areas and conference rooms.
By the end of the tour, he had dropped his confident, I-know-something-you-don’t-know smirk, the presence of which was directly proportional to the speed of her heart and amount of perspiration beneath her arms. In its place was a serious, wary expression. If Hermione had not known any better, she would have said Draco was second-guessing himself.
The tour concluded at his desk, which shared an edge with Theo’s and was across the office from hers, Harry’s, and Ron’s. She nodded at Theo, who returned the gesture with his usual quiet restraint, and turned to Draco with a smile.
“Any questions?” she asked.
Draco ran his fingers across the desk’s edges, then moved them to his chair, idly spinning it. His eyes flicked to Theo’s desk. “Where are my office supplies?”
Theo breathed a laugh, and Hermione’s stomach sank.
“Right,” she said, unable to prevent misery from coloring her tone. Draco shot her a sideways look. She parried it with a bracing smile that felt more like a grimace and started toward the back corner of the office. “Carol is our administrative assistant,” she explained. “You’ll go through her for your quills, parchment, memo stationery, FireConference setup, Floo or Portkey arrangements...”
She trailed off as Carol’s desk came into view. Draco’s steps stuttered to a halt behind her.
The Auror Headquarters and Magical Law Enforcement offices were unusually devoid of decoration considering Christmas Eve was just three days away. Other departments thought Level Two was staffed with Scrooges, but the natives were actually just compensating for Carol’s customary overindulgence of holiday cheer.
This year’s theme was “Christmas at the Equator.” The standard office carpeting slowly turned into sand as Hermione and Draco approached her desk. It crunched and shifted beneath Hermione’s heels, and she gladly took Draco’s proffered arm as she stumbled. Several waist-high tiki torches shaped like candy canes flickered with patternless red, green, and white lights. In the small space beside the desk, a miniature Santa—sunburned and in shorts—lounged on a beach chair, a sweating, pink drink garnished with fruit and a small umbrella at his elbow. In the far corner of her office, green palm fronds, twinkling with white lights, brushed the ceiling.
“Carol?” Hermione asked tentatively.
The older woman popped up as if her legs had been Transfigured into springs. The bells on her Christmas sweater tinkled as she shuffled toward them, burdened as she was by her curly-toed elf shoes. She fluffed her short, blonde hair, smiled sweetly at them both, and spoke with sincere excitement.
“This must be Draco!”
No one knew exactly how long Carol had worked on Level Two, but they knew—even from her infrequent absences—that the department could not function without her. Her eccentricities were thus tolerated, by some better than others. Draco, who obviously resided in the others category, offered her his hand with a vague expression of distaste. She pumped it enthusiastically, her curved red and green nails biting into the skin on the back of his hand.
“He’ll need the full complement of supplies, please, Carol.” Hermione’s voice was a bit too loud for how near they stood, but it successfully captured Carol’s attention. She dropped Draco’s mangled hand and pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. The plastic evergreens on the eyeglass chain around her neck clattered together, releasing a faint scent of pine.
“Of course!” she clucked, clasping her hands to her chest. “I’d be delighted to help!”
Hermione began to edge away. “Great, thank you, Carol.”
Draco, flexing his fingers, echoed her without feeling. “Yes… Thank you.”
“Anytime, dears. Oh, I almost forgot!” Carol whipped around in a full circle and held out two lime green candy canes. “Margarita flavored,” she trilled with a wink. “Happy holidays!”
Hermione plucked the candy from Carol’s fingers with a quiet, “Happy holidays,” and spun away before either of them were drawn into further conversation.
Draco followed, and once they were out of sight of Carol’s desk, Hermione slowed her pace. Draco drew abreast of her and looked speculatively at the candy cane.
“Is that woman genuine?”
The question was quiet and probably rhetorical. Hermione, after unwrapping her candy cane, answered him anyway. “You should see what she does for Valentine’s Day.”
Draco spent the rest of his first day at his desk reading over the Ministry’s Employee Handbook, drinking tea, visiting the loo, and talking with Theo. He did not once look over at Hermione, Harry, or Ron—not even to exchange dirty looks with the latter two.
Hermione knew this because she spent the rest of his first day pretending to review the legislation she had been assigned, drinking tea, visiting the loo, and wondering just what he was discussing with Theo. Theo, aside from looking her way twice that afternoon, conveyed not even a hint of it.
Hermione arrived at the office later than normal the next day and was surprised to find the typically quiet Level Two humming with quiet conversation. Something similar had happened once before when an intern had made a doubly-strong kettle of tea, but there was signage posted now, so surely that wasn’t it.
When she rounded the corner to the common seating area, she knew at once the cause of the kerfuffle. Her mouth gaped wide, and she walked over to it, drawn like a child to a bûche de Noël.
Draco’s desk was entirely wrapped in Christmas paper, a repeating pattern of penguins in sunglasses. A large green bow sat in the upper right corner. His chair was similarly decorated, though the pattern was blue and silver stars, because Carol, for all her faults, didn’t discriminate. It seemed that Draco’s office supplies had arrived, too, as each quill, inkpot, and roll of parchment was individually wrapped and addressed specifically to him, from givers such as “Rudolf,” “Caga Tió,” and “The Admirable Snowman.”
A sudden hush descended upon the office, and Hermione knew that Draco had just arrived. She turned, watching with wide eyes as he wound his way through the frozen workspace, his silver eyes flashing like the tinsel which hung from his Ministry-standard potted plant. He dropped his briefcase at her feet and glared down at her. Now that he was close to her—in truth, maybe too close, as she was having trouble forming coherent thoughts—she could see light patches of pink high on his cheeks.
“Is this supposed to be a joke?”
“No,” she said, her voice weak. He smelled like clove and broomstick polish, and there were flecks of blue in his glacial eyes.
“Some sort of hazing, then? A rite of passage? Have I now earned my position here?” His tone went from quietly controlled to quietly snarling, and she was glad for it, because it reminded her of everything she didn’t like.
She took a step back. “You’ve been Caroled.”
“Caroled?” he snapped.
“Carol, our admin. She…” Hermione gestured at his desk. “She gets excited. You saw her yesterday.”
“Excited? This is excited?”
Hermione lifted her chin, feeling defensive of the eccentric woman. “Well, you have your supplies now, at least.”
A loud, braying burst of laughter came from the doorway; Hermione did not have to look over her shoulder to know that Ron had arrived. The spots of pink on Draco’s cheeks darkened.
“In a matter of speaking,” Draco said, his low tone promising revenge.
“She means well,” Hermione replied in an attempt at consolation.
Draco clenched his jaw, his eyes making another circuit of the office. People were still staring. Hermione felt their eyes but had the luxury of not caring. She had been scrutinized for far worse. Draco had, too, come to that, but he was a stranger to most of these people. A man known for his mistakes, who most thought had unfairly escaped punishment for his involvement with Voldemort and was then unfairly hired by the Ministry. Having his desk covered in wrapping was the definition of an inauspicious start.
“I don’t see anyone else’s desk decorated.”
“Everyone else schedules around the holidays,” she reminded him. “You’re in the unfortunate position of not having a choice in the matter.”
“So I just have to deal with it?”
She nodded. “Only for another few days. She starts her New Year’s celebration the day after Christmas, so she’ll be more or less insensible until January third. Here, let me put my bag down. I’ll help you clean this up.”
On a whim, she put her hand on his arm. It was meant to be a comforting gesture, a sign of solidarity, but he scowled and shrugged her off.
“I don’t want your help,” he said with a sneer. He took a great handful of penguin paper and ripped it away. “I can handle this myself.”
She stepped back, affronted and hurt, but kept the emotions from her face. “Very well,” she said in a curt, professional sort of tone. “Don’t forget we have a staff meeting in thirty minutes.” With that, she spun on her heel and joined a still-laughing Ron at their cluster of desks.
The Unwrapping, as Ron—and then everybody else—had taken to calling it, occupied all of Draco’s morning. Carol had used abnormally durable tape on the smaller items, which necessitated the use several different severing charms. It was a credit to Draco’s magical ability and control that only two of his ten quills emerged from their wrapping with clipped feathers.
Draco’s earlier rejection made ignoring him simple, and Hermione did so successfully until after lunch, when a memo landed on her desk. The script on its face could only come from one person, and Hermione chanced a look over to where he and Theo sat. Draco read that morning’s news briefing, though his eyes did not seem to move. Theo watched her without compunction. She furrowed her brows at him, he lifted his brows at her, and since she had no idea what either of them had meant by it, she opened the memo without further delay.
I was an arse.
She rolled her eyes, figuring that was as much of an apology as she was likely to get, when a snowflake landed on her hand. The cold startled her so much that she dropped the memo to her desk. Another flake landed on the parchment, blotting the word arse into illegibility.
Hermione looked up and laughed softly: a small cloud had appeared above her, catching her in a miniature blizzard. Snowflakes drifted gently around her hair and cheeks, resting prettily along her eyelashes and eyebrows, and melting into sparkling beads of water from the heat of her body.
She looked over to Draco, who had dropped his pretense and now openly stared at her, too. She smiled at him, he smiled back, and her stomach swooped as if it were a Seeker who had just spotted the Snitch.
A loud bang from behind made her jump in her seat. She swiveled and saw Ron, who had also received a memo, covered from face to chest in green and silver glitter.
The third day of Draco’s employment was also the day before Christmas vacation. The looming, five-day respite from work served to make almost the entire Ministry both distractible and cheery, especially near the day’s end.
Draco was one of the few exceptions, as it was the day of his first FireConference. He had set it up late Monday, before the wrapping debacle, and Hermione could see nervousness in the hard line of his lips.
Not that she noticed his lips more than anybody else’s, of course. Though she did concede that there was something particularly eye-catching about them. Pale pink, well-shaped, and expressive, Draco’s lips looked capable. The myriad answers to what they could be capable of made her blush.
She waited for the blood to recede from her cheeks before crossing to Draco’s desk, where he sat twirling a hacked quill. Theo’s chair faced him, and it looked as though they were having a one-way conversation, in that Theo was talking and Draco may or may not have been listening. Both Slytherins noted her approach. The latter stood and the former made his exit toward the kitchenette.
“Are you ready for your first FireCon?” she asked, after a quick, puzzled look at Theo’s back.
Draco grimaced. “Yes.”
“You remembered to request a Translation Charm?”
“Yes,” he answered. Hermione wrote off his sharper-than-warranted tone to stress.
“It was a good idea,” she continued, undaunted, “to set up an introductory conference with your counterpoint at the Italian Ministry. It’s important to make a good impression and set standards for how you plan to communicate and coordinate.”
“I took Communication and Teams, too,” he said, voice still mild.
Hermione heaved an inward sigh and tried one last time: “You and Theo seem to be getting along well.”
He shot her a quick look. “He’s the one who told me about the position.”
She nodded; she doubted anyone but a friend could have convinced him to apply to the Ministry, to say nothing of accepting the job.
Draco hesitated, then continued, “He and Pansy are the only ones I still talk to.”
She nodded again. Crabbe was dead, Goyle was in Azkaban, and Zabini was a prat.
“Your heads are always together. I’ve started to think you’re plotting something,” she remarked with a smile.
“Don’t let other people hear you say that,” he said, only half joking.
He hung back to let her into the conference room first, and she was surprised to see they were the last ones to arrive. The crescent-shaped table was shrunk down to seat five. Ron was at the table’s far end, and beside him was Harry. Draco’s seat was in the middle, as he would be controlling the Floo. Hermione sat on Draco’s right, leaving the chair closest to the door unoccupied.
The room fell silent as Draco took his place. He cleared his throat and looked steadily into the gaping maw of the specially constructed Floo, which stood from floor to ceiling and spanned the length of the room.
“Giuseppe Girardi!” he said loudly.
The Floo roared. Hermione winced against the sudden, intense light, and when the spots in her eyes cleared, she saw a small gathering of Italian Ministry employees wreathed in green flame and sitting at a crescent table much like their own.
Draco cleared his throat. “Hel-lo all, hel-lo all, I’m Drac-o Mal-foy!” he sang, in the tune of ‘Jingle Bells.’
Hermione’s eyes widened, and she gave him a sideways glance. A slow flush crept up Draco’s neck, and his lips were pressed together in a line so thin and hard that the pale pink had turned the same color as his skin. She looked into the Floo. Several of the Italian contingent had their heads cocked and brows furrowed in mild confusion. A few squinted into the Floo, as if that could help their hearing.
“Apol-o-gies for all that,” he sang again, the tune continuing uninterrupted.
Though he had spoken quietly and shut up almost immediately, the damage had been done. Slow grins spread over the Italians’ faces. Giuseppe began to speak.
“Heeeellloooo Dracoooooo. Nice to meeeeeet you, Dracoooooo.”
His reply, forced by the Translation Charm into the tune of ‘Silent Night,’ was followed by a raucous bout of laughter on both sides of the Floo.
“What-a fan-tast-ic con-f’rence,” said Ron. He spoke in ‘Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ “I wish they were all like this!”
Hermione looked again at Draco, whose grey eyes shone with murderous fury. She stood.
“Cleeeeaaaarly there’s beeeen a teeeechnical glitch,” she said, her voice cracking on the high notes of ‘We Three Kings.’ “Let’s reeee-con-veeeene after Christmaaaas.”
Giuseppe wiped his streaming eyes and nodded. “Thaaaaaat sounds gooooood. Enjooooooy your hooooools.”
The flames died and, before Hermione could stop him, Draco was gone. She rushed after him.
“Draco, wait!” Her voice was normal now, the charm having ended with the FireCon. She had to jog to catch up with his long, quick strides. Quite a feat, considering she had chosen today to break in her new pair of two-inch black heels. “Wait!”
“Leave it, Granger!” he hissed, whirling on her. “I don’t need any more humiliation today!”
“In here,” said she, ignoring him and opening the door to an empty conference room. He stood immobile, glaring at her, until he heard Ron’s continued off-key singing from down the hallway. Then, with a grumble, he complied. Hermione took a minute to catch her breath and straighten her blouse before joining him.
Draco stared out the magicked windows—currently charmed to show a quaint and snowy pastoral scene—with mute rage. His arms were crossed, and his back and neck were stiff with tension.
“Go ahead,” she prompted gently. “I’ve soundproofed the door.”
“I quit,” he said at once, his voice as measured and controlled as his body.
Hermione raised her brows in surprise. “I know the FireCon didn’t go the way you’d hoped—”
His composure cracked as he rounded on her and spat, “You’re bloody damn right it didn’t!”
“It wasn’t your f—”
“I was humiliated,” he continued, starting to pace. “In front of the Italian Ministry, in front of my co-workers, in front of you. And this, on top of the stationary and the desk paper…” He rubbed a hand through his hair, mussing it in a very distracting way. “This isn’t how I imagined my first week at the Ministry,” he admitted bitterly. “I just wanted to keep a low profile, do my work, and establish a reputation. Not be made a laughingstock by an incompetent secretary.”
“Administrative assistant,” Hermione corrected, earning a scowl.
“I never should have let Nott persuade me to come here.”
“Draco, you’ve been here three days. They haven’t been easy days, I know, but you can’t think that they’re representative of life on Level Two. Giving up on it so soon would be a waste of both your time and your potential.”
He gave a derisive little snort; it immediately annoyed her.
“I was part of the team that reviewed your application,” she said snappishly. “Do you think you’d be here right now if I didn’t think you were a good fit? There are still plenty who don’t think you should work here, who don’t think you can, and quitting now would prove all of them right.”
“So?” he said, in one last burst of petulance.
“So prove me right instead.”
He looked at her for a long moment, as if weighing her words. “You wanted me here?”
Having all but admitted it, she could do no more than lift her chin a bit higher. “So what if I did?”
“So what indeed…” Draco’s eyes raked over her, his expression speculative. Those capable lips quirked when their eyes met again, and his voice dropped an octave when he said, “Nice shoes, Granger.”
The room’s atmosphere had turned from annoyance to something much fiercer. The pastoral scene shifted into the cozy interior of a cabin, complete with roaring fire, bearskin rug, and bottle of red wine. The room grew warmer, and Hermione swayed toward him.
Then, the conference room door slammed open.
Hermione gasped and lurched backwards. Considerably more composed, Draco turned to scowl at Theo, who smiled like a fox who had just discovered an open henhouse. His sly, hazel eyes slipped from Hermione to Draco.
“I wondered who would be the first to find you two in a conference room.”
Hermione’s heart skipped a beat; had she really been so obvious? An even more interesting question: had he?
“What do you want, Nott?” Draco all but growled.
“I just wanted to see if you would be joining us for the traditional interoffice caroling,” Theo replied without the barest hint of a smile. “I heard you were a natural.”
Draco’s wand was in hand at once, but Hermione caught his arm before he could cast.
“No, thank you, Theo,” she said firmly. “I think we’ve had enough for one week.” Theo shrugged and disappeared, though Hermione didn’t think he’d gone far. She turned to address Draco, regardless. “Perhaps you’d like to join me for a drink instead?”
Draco turned back toward her, his expression serious. “On one condition: if they turn on holiday music, we find somewhere else.”
“Agreed,” she said with a smile.
And at that moment, despite her previous assertion, Hermione felt very much like singing.